Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita. (Inferno, I, 1-3)
Midway through the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
Dante sets off on his journey with these spellbinding lines.
A dark wood swallows many of us at some point–leaving no direction to head in. This crisis either means that we will fall into an abyss, never to return, or that from these uncertain beginnings we can refashion our world from an entirely different vantage point. Dante wipes the slate clean in order to prepare us for the trials and wonders to come. Those who are lost are also those who are seekers.
So isn’t it an advantage to lose our footing from time to time? We are all wretched pilgrims. I don’t mean we are “sinners” who deserve an earful of gospel and a whack on the behind. I mean, we are all looking for the “ultimate thing” that will right our worlds and make us happy. That “ultimate thing” might mean anything from losing weight or becoming famous to making the world safe for honeybees or bringing about a communist revolution.
If perhaps we discover that our particular “ultimate thing” doesn’t really mean anything at all, that actually everything we’ve valued in life is a farce, either we try to dull the pain with whatever is in reach, or we face our worst enemy and–eye to eye with the beast in the woods–we hold our breath and blindly put one foot in front of the other until the ground appears beneath our feet.
If all this sounds like Buddhist claptrap–perhaps it is. (I’ve certainly read enough Buddhist books–they’re sprouting out of my ears!) But think of the people we have lost along the way who could not make it out of a dark wood. Their disappearance might be blamed on “addictions” of various sorts or a long history of mental illness, but basically it comes down to how they dealt with periods of blindness and uncertainty. They lost their way and–with no clue of where to turn–they tumbled into the tree-filled darkness.